November 18, 2011

Behind the Scenes

Did you ever wonder where the individual national parks turn for assistance?  Who conserves the artifacts before they are put on display in park museums?  Who prepares the brochures that are handed out to visitors?  Who designs new exhibits?  Who maintains the database of all collections?  It turns out that much of this work is handled by the Harpers Ferry Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and that’s where Tim and I spent much of the day.

When Tim catalogues objects in the collection at Rocky Mountain National Park, he submits copies of the catalog records to the National Catalogue.  This is also where he submits his annual reports, including the ones that he had to finish before leaving on our road trip.  Today, he visited the National Catalogue for the first time and saw the row after row of records that are maintained there.  Nancy Thatcher was kind enough to meet with Tim and me and give us a tour of the facility.  It was impressive to see what such a small staff is responsible for.

Nancy and Tim and the Storage Units Housing the Catalogue Records
Nancy also arranged for us to take a tour of the Conservation Laboratories at the Harpers Ferry Center.  Larry Bowers took time out of his busy schedule to walk us through many of the labs where the staff examines, analyzes and performs treatments that restore and extend the life of museum objects in national park collections.  Larry specializes in wood object conservation, and there are also labs for textiles, metals, paper and ethnographic objects.  He showed us examples of “before’s” and “after’s” and it’s incredible what they are able to do.  It was quite a treat to see firsthand the behind-the-scenes workings of the National Park Service.

Larry Showed Us This Piece of Furniture He's Working On
Harpers Ferry is also home to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.  The park is perhaps best-known as the site of John Brown’s raid in 1859 on the Federal armory.  Brown’s goal was to free the slaves, and he believed that seizing the weapons at the arsenal would be a starting point.  His plan failed, however, and he was captured, tried and hanged for treason.

John Brown's Fort, Where He Was Captured
The park is much more than John Brown, however.  The original town of Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers has been preserved.  Exhibits in the many building within the park explain the industrial history of the town, its natural heritage, its role in the Civil War, its African American history and the role of transportation in the growth and development of the town.

Lower Town Harpers Ferry

Nineteenth-Century Harpers Ferry

The Point Where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers Meet
Tim and I also learned that Harpers Ferry was the supply center for the Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery that eventually traversed the continent to the Pacific Ocean and back.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine, passes through Harpers Ferry, and Tim and I can legitimately claim that we have now hiked a portion of the trail.  We just won’t mention that the portion we hiked was only a few hundred yards or so.


  1. Are you going to see LaVonne in West Virginia?


  2. Alice, Yes, we are going back to West Virginia on Sunday and are looking forward to seeing LaVonne. Sarah